Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer
FAYETTEVILLE — The city could soon have an official business association that advocates for the entire downtown area for the first time in 13 years.
The Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission on Monday voted unanimously to create a director of downtown initiatives position and to allocate $100,000 to the effort.
The new hire will begin as an employee of the city’s tourism bureau, Experience Fayetteville, and will eventually transition to being an employee of the independent organization and report to its board of directors, said Molly Rawn, CEO of Experience Fayetteville and executive director of the commission.
The city had a previous downtown association called Fayetteville Downtown Partners, but that group dissolved in 2009 following a two-year economic recession.
Rawn said getting a new downtown association organized is something she’s wanted to see happen in Fayetteville since she was first hired by the commission in 2016.
“I feel that Fayetteville needs a strong downtown association,” said Rawn. “We at Experience Fayetteville have done a lot of work with initiatives and programs that are typically done by a downtown association…but sometimes they’re not exactly in our wheelhouse of tourism.”
Commissioner Todd Martin, who owns Theo’s, East Side Grill and Southern Food Co., agreed and said the business owners in the entertainment district are on board with idea.
For many years, the Dickson Street Merchants Association served as a champion for the restaurants and bars along Dickson Street, but the group has recently broadened its mission. Martin said two key figures retired about 18 months ago, which led to a name change and the formation of a transitional board tasked with exploring the formation of a new downtown association. The group now goes by the Downtown Fayetteville Coalition.
“It was time that the Dickson Street Merchants evolve beyond Dickson Street,” Martin said.
With the revitalization of Block Avenue, the Mill District, the downtown square and the upcoming cultural arts corridor, Martin said it was clear that downtown Fayetteville is about more than just Dickson Street.
Martin said the board’s biggest finding was that there simply isn’t enough time for individual business owners to run their own shops while also leading a successful promotional group.
“Everybody has day jobs,” said Martin. “And so to be really effective in recruiting and doing the things that need to be done, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Rawn described it as a classic chicken and egg situation.
“I don’t know how they’re going to build a new organization without having a dedicated staff person, and I don’t know how they’re going to hire a staff person without having an organization from which to hire them,” Rawn said.
So the plan, she said, is for Experience Fayetteville to serve as an incubator in hopes that the new organization can be operating on its own after about three years.
Rawn said the process could be similar to how the Northwest Arkansas Council hired a dedicated staff person to promote the region’s creative economy who eventually helped form and lead the now independent nonprofit Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange (CACHE). The Ozark Outdoor Foundation has a similar startup story that began with one staff member at The Runway Group.
Rawn said there are strong standalone downtown associations in many areas across the state including regional cities like Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, Siloam Springs, Eureka Springs and Fort Smith, as well as other places like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Paragould, Jonesboro and El Dorado.
“We are one of the only first-class cities in Arkansas that does not have one, so it’s time,” Rawn said. “But I don’t think we should go it alone.”
Rawn said city officials are supportive of the idea, so she hopes the City Council will also allocate money to the initiative.
City Council members Sarah Bunch and Mark Kinion both serve on the commission as council representatives. Each said they like the idea, but getting council approval will require a compelling argument.
“I like this idea because it’s in my ward, so I say go for it,” said Kinion, who represents Ward 2, which is typically associated with the downtown and Dickson Street areas. “But we have to look at the broad impact.”
Martin said the Downtown Fayetteville Coalition has defined the downtown area as roughly Maple Street to the north, College Avenue to the east, Arkansas Avenue to the west and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the south.
“Now that is a loose boundary,” said Martin. “For instance, we have identified businesses that are on the other side of College that certainly would be included.”
Bunch, who represents Ward 3 in northeast Fayetteville, said a concise presentation that clearly outlines how allocating money to one specific part of town will benefit the city as a whole will be key in getting buy-in from residents and the full council.
“I’m well aware of the importance of the downtown area myself,” said Bunch. “So I think it’s a good possibility, but it will take a lot of finessing.”